It was a poignant and momentous day; every moment delicately adorned by the bright memory of Hajj Muhammad Ali.
It began early in the morning on a hot summer day as I walked past Cave Hill Cemetery. Crowds were already thronging around the cobblestone entryway, which was draped with a curtain of flower petals shimmering in the sunlight. Directly adjacent to the cemetery was an Episcopal Church with signs on front lawns that read: “To Our Muslim Neighbors: A Blessed Ramadan.”
From there I started walking West, down Broadway St. in midtown Louisville. Ahead of me stretched forty long blocks with people, young and old, of every race, color and creed crowding the sidewalks, waiting to catch a final glimpse of their beloved champion despite the hot sun beating down from above. Many wore “I am Ali” t-shirts or brandished posters with Muhammad Ali’s likeness. Still more held signs with a simple message: “Thank you.”
I cut a detour along a side-street linking Broadway to Muhammad Ali Blvd. A sweet young lady stopped me along the way, and pointed to an orange brick building: “That’s his high school,” she said. She didn’t even need to ask why I was there or where I was going. “Hurry,” she said. “He’ll be coming down Muhammad Ali Blvd soon.”
I got there just before his motorcade pulled up. The streets were teeming with onlookers. It was a tense moment, eerily silent. All of a sudden, enthused chants of “Ali, Ali, Ali” cut through the silence. I looked and saw the motorcade approaching. The fourth car from the front was a long black limousine carrying his body, and as it passed by, I caught a glimpse of the golden mantle draping his casket, with those golden sacred words gleaming back at me: “محمد رسول الله” (Muhammad is the Messenger of God).
I found myself invoking the sacred blessing, اللهم صل على محمد وآل محمد, and reciting Surat al-Fatiha, the quintessential opening and closing of our tradition. And all the while, I was immersed in that thunderous lilt that rang from the lips of everyone around me: “Ali, Ali, Ali!”
During those brief moments, I was no longer in the deep South. This wasn’t Louisville, Kentucky. I had visited this city on numerous occasions in the past, but today, I didn’t recognize it.
I didn’t have time to process. I knew that if I wanted to cut back to Broadway Blvd to catch another glimpse, I wouldn’t have any chance of making in time to catch the motorcade back at the cemetery. I caught an Uber and went straight for the cemetery. There, the crowds had swelled dramatically. People waited patiently despite a palpable tension in the air. A few gracious souls were handing out water bottles to help spectators battle the intense heat. There were no barricades and even the police presence was cordial and polite, facilitating the experience of onlookers rather than constricting them. I stood at the street corner adjacent to the entrance of the cemetery and waited.
Before long, the motorcade approached once more. Again the voices rose in unison: “Ali, Ali, Ali!” Again I caught my final glimpse of that golden mantle embellished with sacred invocations. إن لله وإن إليه راجعون.
Again I felt a void, a somber dearth. I remembered Malcolm X. I remembered Muhammad Ali. I remembered the words of a good friend who wrote that his demise marks not the demise of an individual, but the demise of a time when great men used to roam the earth… And then I was undone.
There’s much to be thought, understood, spoken, written, invoked and remembered by those who will rightly cherish and seek to honor his legacy as they strive for some measure of beauty and goodness in the world. Minutes will come for those words, in moments when God calls upon our higher selves. But this moment calls for stillness, reflection, and inward growth.
Indeed we are for God, and unto Him we shall return. Rest in peace Hajj Muhammad Ali. May the Beloved bless you, forgive your sins and welcome you into His eternal abode.